Turkey: Gay, religious and secular women raising their voices in solidarity

Women’s Day in Turkey: A manifestation of the unity that embraces diversity.

Right before Inter­na­tio­nal Women’s Day, Tur­kish Sta­te Minis­ter for Fami­ly and Women’s Affairs, Sel­ma Ali­ye Kavaf, made con­tro­ver­si­al com­ments on morals and values in Tur­key during her speech to a highly ran­ked natio­nal new­spa­per.

Argu­ing that homo­sexua­li­ty is a dise­ase which can be treated, Kavaf con­ti­nued with cri­ti­ci­zing the poli­ti­cal stan­ding of some femi­nist NGOs in Tur­key. She stated that vio­len­ce against women is some­ti­mes so exag­ge­rated by cer­tain NGOs that they per­ce­i­ve it as a form of psycho­lo­gical vio­len­ce when a hus­band asks her wife for food. Final­ly, Kavaf expressed her irri­ta­tion by some soap ope­ras which have expli­cit kis­sing sce­nes.

These shock­ing com­ments mag­ne­tized seve­r­al reac­tions from LGBT (les­bi­an, gay, bisexu­al, trans­gen­der) orga­niza­tions, human rights orga­niza­tions, artists, and many other intel­lec­tuals. One orga­niza­tion recent­ly filed a cri­mi­nal com­plaint against the minis­ter. I argue that one of the most power­ful respon­ses was given to the minis­ter during the demon­stra­tions of Women’s Day in the cities of Anka­ra and Istan­bul.

March 8 cele­bra­tions in Anka­ra. The ban­ner says: — In the 100th anni­ver­sa­ry of Women’s Day, we are get­ting stron­ger, chan­ging with strugg­le. (photo: Eda Aca­ra).

This year on the 8th of March, when Women’s Day was cele­brated all over Tur­key, a group of peop­le attracted my atten­tion as I was watch­ing some videos cap­tu­red during the cele­bra­tions. The group belonged to the Women’s Plat­form which uni­tes dif­fe­rent women’s ini­tia­ti­ves and orga­niza­tions. Inste­ad of scream­ing out cliché slo­gans with fixed tone of voi­ce, they use some sort of a humorous but poli­ti­cal­ly cri­ti­cal way of pro­tes­ting. For instan­ce, a group of women wit­hin this plat­form sing one of the famous songs from the 1970s named “I born free, I live free” (hür doğ­dum, hür yaşarım) whi­le jum­ping on the stre­ets to the lyrics. So, the­re was this girl who covered her­self with her rain­bow flag, whi­le sin­ging loud­ly, arm in arm with a vei­led woman:

Why does this liar world keep limi­ting me? Who the hell are you inter­fe­ring with my life? I was born free, I live free, it is none of your busi­ness, I am not sla­ve to you. My mis­ta­ke, my life, it is none of their busi­ness, go do your own busi­ness, don’t inter­fe­re with my life.

Anot­her sce­ne that cap­tu­red my atten­tion was when a second group of peop­le were all sit­ting on the stre­et with their litt­le hand-made drums (emp­ty cans pro­bab­ly fil­led with len­til, rice, small sto­nes) and whist­les. One of them was stan­ding and shou­ting “Make noi­se against hete­ro­sexism, make noi­se against fascism, make noi­se against capi­ta­lism.” Sud­den­ly, eve­rybody was shou­ting, whist­ling, play­ing those drums, right before they slow­ly sto­od up and shouted “Anot­her world is pos­sib­le”. It is qui­te fasci­na­ting to see the uni­ty and soli­darity of that group of women with diver­se back­grounds.

Throug­hout this short essay, I will try to intro­du­ce the dyna­mics of the main­stre­am women’s move­ment in Tur­key and argue that this women’s plat­form might be an indi­ca­tor of a new epoch for this move­ment.

The Turkish Modernization Process: Making the Public Sphere Available for Women

First of all, I will give a brief sum­mary of the Tur­kish Moder­niza­tion process as many of the reforms con­cer­ning women were intro­du­ced during that peri­od of time.

Sin­ce the estab­lish­ment of the Repub­lic in 1923, Tur­key has gone through a process of western­iza­tion, secu­la­riza­tion and natio­na­liza­tion; i.e., the com­po­nents of what is often defined as the moder­niza­tion pro­ject (Sak­tan­ber, 2002, p.20). Women were regar­ded as an impor­tant part of this whole process. As a part of the ‘secu­la­riza­tion’ process, women were aimed to be freed from the con­stra­ints of reli­gion and tur­ned into citizens of the young repub­lic. The Swiss Civil Code was adop­ted in 1926 and women’s suf­fra­ge was intro­du­ced in 1934 which can both be regar­ded as the major reforms (see additio­nal sources under Refe­ren­ces bel­ow).

Adop­tion of The Swiss Civil Code gua­rante­ed all Turkey’s citizens equal rights before the law, regard­less of their lan­gua­ge, reli­gion, race and gen­der. The most impor­tant aspect was the ‘secu­la­riza­tion’ of the legal sys­tem. In terms of women’s rights, the law gua­rante­ed:

  • Equa­li­ty betwe­en men and women wit­hin fami­ly
  • ‘Offi­ci­al’ sta­te mar­riage as the only ‘legal’ mar­riage (reli­gious mar­riage is not legal­ly rec­og­nized in Tur­key)
  • Abo­lish­ment of poly­ga­my
  • Equa­li­ty betwe­en men and women regar­ding the issues of divor­ce, mar­riage, inhe­ri­tan­ce and wit­nessing in tri­als

The civil code was revised and approved in 2001 and came into effect on Janua­ry 1, 2002 (see furt­her infor­ma­tion.)

The rights that were given to women, how­e­ver, have not con­tri­buted to a total free­dom of women from tra­ditio­nal con­stra­ints. The young repub­lic was initi­al­ly an aut­ho­ri­ta­ri­an and cen­tra­lized regi­me which impli­cit­ly con­stra­i­ned the orga­niza­tion of any sort of civil socie­ty. Clai­ming that women had been pro­vi­ded full equal sta­tus with men and herewith did not need any spec­i­fic orga­niza­tion, the govern­ment shut down the Tur­kish Women’s Union in 1935 (descri­bed in an article by Şirin Teke­li on Turkey’s Women’s Move­ment). It is pos­sib­le to say that women were tried to be inte­gra­ted into the pub­lic sphe­re whe­re the boun­da­ries were rigid­ly defined by the sta­te. Accor­ding­ly, women were expec­ted to apprecia­te the citizen­ship rights that were offe­red to them.

State-designated Image of the ‘Modern’ Woman in Turkey

The para­dox­i­cal ope­ra­tion of the moder­niza­tion process in rela­tion to the sta­tus of women can furt­her be eva­lua­ted accor­ding to the sta­te-desig­nated ima­ge of women. The socio-poli­ti­cal struc­tu­re of the Otto­man Empi­re was very tra­ditio­nal and reli­gion was an impor­tant part of the orga­niza­tion of eve­ryday life. In this sen­se, tal­king about women’s citizen­ship rights and offe­ring them access to the pub­lic sphe­re under the ‘moder­niza­tion pro­ject’ was sen­si­ti­ve topics to be discus­sed during the ear­ly years of the repub­lic. In other words, as Ayşe Sak­tan­ber descri­bes in her book “Living Islam: Women, Reli­gion and the Poli­ti­ciza­tion of Cul­tu­re in Tur­key”, the poli­ti­ci­ans of the young repub­lic had to neg­o­tia­te the sta­tus of the ‘modern’ woman with a tra­ditio­nal­ly con­ser­va­ti­ve socie­ty.

March 8 demon­stra­tion in Istan­bul (photo: engin(art))

Secu­la­rism was the key mot­to and positioning of women wit­hin this mot­to was obvious­ly a chal­len­ge. Here, the notion of ‘natio­na­lism’ play­ed a balancing role betwe­en modern and tra­ditio­nal. Whi­le Mus­ta­fa Kemal, the foun­der of the Tur­kish Repub­lic and the com­man­der of the Inde­pen­den­ce War, was pro­pos­ing the reforms con­cer­ning women, he emp­ha­sized the heroic role play­ed by women during the Inde­pen­den­ce War, under­ly­ing the fact that women share a sig­ni­fi­cant part in the inde­pen­den­ce of the coun­try and deser­ve equal rights with men (Par­la, 2001, pp.71–75).

This ima­ge of the nationalist/patriotic woman was not tra­ditio­nal and back­ward-look­ing in terms of appea­ran­ce and she would not stay at home but par­ti­ci­pa­te in the pub­lic sphe­re and ser­ve the moder­niza­tion of the nation. But at the same time she would be care­ful about her honour and chastity. In other words, the patrio­tic modern citizen iden­tity limi­ted the expe­ri­en­ce and the expres­sion of a dis­tinc­ti­ve female sexua­li­ty, Par­la explains. This can be seen as anot­her type of boun­da­ries set in front of women. It sounds like a precon­dition which offers women to enjoy the pub­lic domain but never for­get the values and norms atta­ched to her sexua­li­ty.

Accor­ding to a report pub­lis­hed by Euro­pean Sta­bi­li­ty Ini­tia­ti­ve in 2007, Tur­key has its first “woman revo­lu­tion” during this moder­niza­tion process becau­se of the reforms men­tio­ned abo­ve.

The report sta­tes that cur­rent­ly Tur­key is going through its “second women’s revo­lu­tion” sin­ce 2001 with the con­sti­tu­tio­nal chan­ges wit­hin the Civil and Penal Code. In order to under­stand this ‘second revo­lu­tion’, we have to take a brief look at the devel­op­ment of the femi­nist move­ment in Tur­key.

Organized feminism boosted after military coup

Undoubted­ly, the voi­ces of the 1968 gene­ra­tion were heard in Tur­key as well and dif­fe­rent groups of peop­le were mobi­li­zing paral­lel to the world wide iden­tity move­ments in the 1970s. It was the Pro­gres­si­ve Women’s Orga­niza­tion which was effec­ti­ve in voca­li­zing pri­ma­ri­ly the con­ditions of the wor­king-class women in Tur­key, accor­ding to Teke­li.

The orga­niza­tion and other new femi­nist ini­ta­ti­ves were shar­ply silen­ced when the mili­ta­ry regi­me came into power on Sep­tem­ber 12, 1980. Around 650,000 peop­le were detai­ned, 230,000 peop­le tria­led, 50 exe­cuted, and 14,000 strip­ped of their Tur­kish citizen­ship. All poli­ti­cal par­ties, unions and foun­da­tions were clo­sed.

After the coup, the femi­nist move­ment gai­ned a new per­s­pec­ti­ve and acce­le­ra­tion. Nilu­fer Timi­si and Meltem Gevrek, who were both part of that move­ment, define the main featu­res of the 1980s as “Gai­ning strength” and “Con­scious­ness Rai­sing” in their article. The con­scious­ness rai­sing groups cente­red around neigh­bor­hoods con­sti­tuted the very basics of an orga­nized move­ment. Gevrek and Timi­si talk about how women began to meet weekly at each other’s hou­ses, and sim­ply shared their dai­ly expe­ri­en­ces. The act of ques­tioning the wider sys­tem took its root from ques­tioning these local expe­ri­en­ces. Fin­ding com­mo­na­lities betwe­en each other’s sto­ries hel­ped those groups of women accu­mu­la­te the neces­sa­ry know­led­ge and trigge­red their desire to see the wider pic­tu­re.

This for­ma­tion, how­e­ver, was not uni­ta­ry as it pri­ma­ri­ly follow­ed the Kema­list tra­dition and tur­ned the Mus­lim and vei­led woman into the Other, see­ing them as «back­ward» and «non-modern», as Hil­al Ozce­tin argues in one of her works. The pola­riza­tion betwe­en the secu­lar and the reli­gious left many women out­side of the move­ment. How­e­ver, the main­stre­am femi­nist move­ment mana­ged to press the Sta­te to chan­ge the sexist pat­terns of the 1926 Civil Code which gave hus­bands the pri­vi­leged position as the head of the house­hold, and favo­red the man con­cer­ning pro­per­ty ownership during mar­riage and divor­ce (Teke­li, 2006, p.195).

Women’s legal rights improve, but discrimination persists

Lots of cam­paigns have been laun­ched and The Civil Code was refor­med during 2001. Accor­ding­ly, any sexu­al assault towards women is now taken into con­si­de­ra­tion under the code ‘Felo­nies against Indi­vi­duals’ inste­ad of ‘Felo­nies against Pub­lic Decency and Fami­ly Order’ as it was before. Besi­des, equal pro­per­ty ownership rights con­cer­ning divor­ce and mar­riage are legal­ly ensu­red by the reforms. Yet, the latest govern­men­tal sta­ti­s­tics shows that the­re is still a long way to go for women before they achie­ve equal sta­tus to men in Tur­key.

In Februa­ry 2010, the Pri­me Mini­s­try Direc­to­rate Gene­ral on the Sta­tus of Women (KSGM) pub­lis­hed the most recent sta­ti­s­tics on the labour and poli­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­tion of women in Tur­key (pdf, in Tur­kish).

March 8 demon­stra­tion in Istan­bul (photo: engin(art))

Accor­ding to the report, the labour for­ce par­ti­ci­pa­tion of women has been decreas­ing during the last deca­de. In 1990, 34,1 per­cent of the total labour for­ce was occu­pied by women, how­e­ver, this num­ber decreased to 26,9 per­cent during 2002, and to 24,5 per­cent in 2008. This num­ber is very low as 43 per cent of the uni­ver­sity stu­dents are female. Women’s poli­ti­cal par­ti­ci­pa­tion is rela­tive­ly low in the coun­try as the­re are only 50 women depu­ties in the Tur­kish Par­lia­ment which con­si­sts of 550 seats. KSGM’s report also com­pri­ses num­bers about the phy­si­cal vio­len­ce against women. It is stated that 38 per cent of urban and 43 per cent of rural women are sub­jected to phy­si­cal vio­len­ce in Tur­key.

Uniting the Diversity

The offi­ci­al sta­ti­s­tics regar­ding women’s sta­tus in Tur­key is qui­te super­fi­ci­al and over­look the diver­sity among women. This diver­sity has been kept obscu­re even wit­hin the femi­nist move­ment for a long time. Its agen­da was so much occu­pied by the domi­nan­ce of patri­ar­chy that it did not pay enough con­si­de­ra­tion to the mer­ging of patri­ar­chy with the notions of natio­na­lism, reli­gion, and hete­ro­sexism.

What is new about this new­ly emer­ging femi­nist move­ment that we have seen on the stre­ets of Anka­ra and Istan­bul is the fact that they are able to uni­te dif­fe­rent groups of women by era­sing the ideo­lo­gical dif­fe­ren­ces among them. In this sen­se, for me, they form the most sub­ver­si­ve fist against patri­ar­chy. This new group of peop­le are able to see all the facets of patri­ar­chy which con­stra­ints the lives of a Kurdish woman, secu­lar woman, vei­led woman and les­bi­an woman despi­te the dif­fe­ren­ces in terms of the degree of that oppres­sion. That does not mean that the dif­fe­ren­ces among women are inten­ded to be neg­lected, but a com­mon ground is found to act as a whole. I am sure that those women’s ini­tia­ti­ves, which form the big­ger plat­form, do have a sepa­ra­te and auto­no­mous agen­da that they follow for their own strugg­le. They are, how­e­ver, able to crea­te one ‘multi­vo­cal’ body of action during mass demon­stra­tions, like they did on the 8th of March.

A trans­sexu­al woman in the March 8 cele­bra­tions in Istan­bul. The ban­ner says: — Les­bi­an, Gay, Bisexu­al, Trans­vesti­te, Trans­sexu­al Women are walking in the path ope­ned by the resis­ting TEKEL Wor­kers. (Tekel is a for­mer sta­te enter­pri­se in the tobacco and alco­ho­lic beverage sec­tor that clo­sed down their factory and left many wor­kers unemp­loy­ed). (photo: engin(art))

It is pos­sib­le to tra­ce their uni­ta­ry under­stan­ding in their slo­gans. They shouted “Smash sexu­al, natio­nal, class-based exploi­ta­tion” and “The world would sha­ke if women were free”. Undoubted­ly, the­re are orga­niza­tions who do not want to inte­grate a vei­led woman into them. Some women’s orga­niza­tions never let the les­bi­ans talk, argu­ing that the homo­sexuals’ turn has not come yet. Hen­ce, what I have writ­ten about this plat­form might sound a litt­le bit uto­pi­an as many peop­le pre­fer to look at this new emer­ging group as ‘drea­m­ers’. For me, they are the forerun­ner of a new epoch. “Anot­her world is not only pos­sib­le, she is on her way. On a qui­et day, I can hear her breathing” says Arund­ha­ti Roy descri­bing the new soci­al move­ments that uni­te many dif­fe­rent groups against the destruc­ti­ve for­ces of glo­ba­liza­tion. Con­cer­ning the new femi­nist move­ment in Tur­key, I would like to belie­ve that anot­her world is pos­sib­le also.

References and further reading

Bil­di­ri­ci, F.(07.03.2010). Escin­sel­lik Has­talık, Tedavil Edil­me­li, Retrie­ved 08.03.2010, from http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/pazar/14031207.asp?gid=59

Euro­pean Sta­bi­li­ty Ini­tia­ti­ve (2007). İkin­ci Kadın Devrimi: Femi­nizm, Islam ve Tur­ki­ye Demo­kra­sisinin Olgunlasmasi.Retrieved 09.03.2010, from http://www.esiweb.org/pdf/esi_document_id_91.pdf

KSGM (2010). The Sta­tus of Women in Tur­key. Retrie­ved 03.03.2010, from http://www.ksgm.gov.tr/Pdf/tr_de_kadinin_durumu_subat_2010.pdf

Nilü­fer, T., & Meltem, G. (2002). 1980’ler Türkiyesi’nde Femi­nist Hare­ket: Anka­ra Cev­re­si In B. Aksu & G. Ase­na (Eds.), 90’larda Türkiye’de Femi­nizm. Istan­bul: Ile­ti­sim.

Ozce­tin, H. (2009). ‘Breaking the Silen­ce’: The Reli­gious Mus­lim Women’s Move­ment in Tur­key. Jour­nal of Inter­na­tio­nal Women’s Stu­dies 11(1), 106–119.

Par­la, A. (2001). The ‘Honor’ of the Sta­te: Vir­gi­ni­ty Exa­mi­na­tions in Tur­key. Femi­nist Stu­dies 27(1), 65–89.

Sak­tan­ber, A. (2002). Living Islam: Women, Reli­gion and the Poli­ti­ciza­tion of Cul­tu­re in Tur­key. Lon­don: I.B.Tauris.

Teke­li, Şirin (2006). The Tur­kish Women’s Move­ment: A Brief His­tory of Success. In Qua­derns de la Medi­ter­rà­nia, n. 7, 2006. 193–197.

Seve­r­al aut­hors have ana­ly­zed Turkey’s moder­niza­tion process. Here is a selection for furt­her read­ing:

Aba­dan-Unat, N. (1978). The Moder­niza­tion of Tur­kish Women Midd­le East Jour­nal, 32(3), 291–306 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4325769)

Ahmad, F. (1993). The making of modern Tur­key: Lon­don : Rout­led­ge.

Whi­te, J. B. (2003). Sta­te Femi­nism, Moder­niza­tion, and the Tur­kish Repub­li­can Woman NWSA Jour­nal, 15(3), 145–159.(http://www.jstor.org/stable/4317014)

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